Personhood is in the news. Mississippi is considering a ballot initiative to define a fertilized egg as having personhood. This morning, the New York Times published an editorial on the matter, and the arguments were all framed in consequentialist terms:
“Besides outlawing all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or when a woman’s life is in danger, and banning any contraception that may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, including birth control pills, the amendment carries many implications, some quite serious.”
“It could curtail medical research involving embryos, shutter fertility clinics and put doctors in legal jeopardy for providing needed medical care that might endanger a pregnancy. Pregnant women also could become subject to criminal prosecution. A fertilized egg might be eligible to inherit money or be counted when drawing voting districts by population. Because a multitude of laws use the terms “person” or “people,” there would be no shortage of unintended consequences.”
It is a certainty that there would be consequences to such legislation, but what is interesting is that all of the parties involved in the debate skirt the fundamental issue: what do we mean by personhood anyway? Continue reading
The New York Times had done it again. You would have thought that they had learned their lesson after publishing a rather poorly designed study using fMRI to wax poetic on the various candidates in the 2008 presidential election on the op-ed page; a subsequent letter to the editor signed by 17 experts in brain imaging not only debunked the findings, but added that “the results reported in the article were apparently not peer-reviewed, nor was sufficient detail provided to evaluate the conclusions.” Blog posts galore (here and here and here) and online magazines (here and here) heaped on the scorn, with more than one commentator noting that the op-ed piece seemed more like a thinly veiled advertisement for the private company involved than proper investigation.
But did they learn? Apparently not.
In today’s New York Times, Martin Lindstrom has a high-profile op-ed piece in which he concludes that the relationship between individuals and their iPhones is more like love than it is like addiction. The conclusion may or may not be true, but the methods he uses to arrive at that conclusion – fMRI experiments with 8 men and 8 women, conducted by a neuromarketing firm – are no more robust or thoughtfully examined than the above-cited Iacobini et al. flim-flam that the New York Times previously published on politics. Mr. Lindstrom, who touts himself as both consumer advocate and branding guru but appears to have no academic credentials to warrant his interpretations of fMRI experiments.
Is nobody home at the New York Times?
Update: Tal Yarkoni has a detailed and thoughtful critique up about the Lindstrom article
The New Scientist reports that Brain Plasticity, Inc. a developer of cognitive training games, has entered into discussions with the FDA to market one of its brain training software packages as a bona fide therapeutic. The issue is of interest on many accounts, and the New Scientist article covers many of the obvious ones that were discussed at the Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society meeting held last week in San Francisco. Noteworthy among them are the hope that FDA approval will bring validity to a field that has both serious practitioners and
charlatans others who cut corners, as well as the concern that FDA approval might slow down progress, as the approval process is likely to be glacial compared to the pace of change in software development.
But if we unpack this a bit, we find that there are deeper levels of significance, and at least one of these are is worthy of further discussion. Continue reading
Slate is sponsoring a discussion on transhumanism. The players are Kyle Munkittrick (pro) and the tag team of Brad Allenby (against, sort of) and Nicholas Agar (against in all likelihood, although his post is not yet up). And if you are in the DC area, you can hear Brad and Dan Sarewitz, co-authors of the book The Techno-Human Condition (highly recommended!!) debate the issues with Emily Yoffe of Slate as the moderator.
Retribution, the dictionary tells us, is the dispensing of punishment for misdeeds. Derived from the Latin re tribuere, it literally means to pay back. We humans have strong retributive instincts, and it is often said that this behaviour arose as a product of our evolution as social beings: the threat of retribution enforces social norms, and was among the features that increased the likelihood of cooperation among members of society in the early years of human evolution. Given that cooperation confers significant adaptive advantages to the group, retributive norms flourished, and whether via genes or enculturation, the desire for retribution has been passed on to us.
The value of retributive impulses in the modern world is more difficult to discern. We humans are noted for having the ability to not only act in a manner that is instinctive, but also to reflect upon the propriety of our actions. Amongst philosophers, retribution is often contrasted with consequentialism, the notion that the response to a misdeed should produce the best result for society. Consequentialism is possible because the modern human brain is able to reason, and by so doing we are able to anticipate near, medium and long-term futures: we can decide whether the best response to a misdeed is retribution, education, or even doing nothing at all. At different times, different responses may be called for. What matters most to the consequentialist is not the payback but rather the outcome. The tension between retribution and consequentialism is a hot button issue in the field of neurolaw, where neuroessentialists argue that it is time to rethink the concept of punishment, while traditionalists suggest that deterrence remains the best way of organizing civil society. Continue reading
In their recent book The Techno-Human Condition, Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz address a number of issues that arise when thinking about enhancements. One of the points that they make, which bears some consideration, is that the most enhanced people in our society today are soldiers. The military has an interest in enhancing its soldiers – physically and mentally – and as a result soldiers are at the tip of the spear of enhancement technologies. Nonetheless, as Allenby and Sarewitz wryly point out, there is no groundswell of desire to become a soldier so that one can be enhanced.
Lest one think that this is all just idle speculation, one need only read a 2005 paper by Andrew B. Meadows, a US Air Force Major with the title Fatigue in Continuous and Sustained Airpower Operations: Review of Pharmacologic Countermeasures and Policy Recommendations. The paper begins by reviewing the Tarnak Farms friendly fire incident:
“On the evening of 17 April 2002, two US F-16s were airborne near Kandahar, Afghanistan providing on-call support for coalition ground forces as part of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The two pilots, COFFEE 51 and COFFEE 52, had been flying for approximately six hours when they detected what they perceived to be surface-to-air fire off the right side of their formation. Subsequently, COFFEE 52 requested permission from the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to employ his 20mm cannon in response to the threat. After a series of radio communications between the F-16s and the AWACS, COFFEE 52 called “self-defense” in response to seeing several men gathered near an artillery piece and released a 500-pound laser guided bomb on the target. Two minutes and twenty seconds had elapsed from the request for 20mm cannon fire and release of the bomb. The bomb detonated three feet from the gathering of men, killing four and wounding eight. The men were Canadian – friendly forces conducting a training exercise in the area (Dumas 2002).” Continue reading
Neuroessentialist thinking seems to be seeping into popular discourse more and more with each passing day. Consider this.
When you buy something, you want to get the best deal possible. The internet has made that easier than ever, with online comparison shopping allowing consumers to shave dollars off the purchase price by comparing the costs at competing retailers. One of the remarkable ‘benefits’ of online retailing, it has also allowed for a loophole that represents a moral dilemmas that we must each evaluate.
The loophole in question is the ability of online retailers to avoid charging customers sales tax, at least in the United States (here in Canada, online retailers, charge local taxes). The loophole arises because retailers are allowed to forego charging state tax to out-of-state residents. Amazon, the Goliath of online sales, appears to be everywhere, but legally is nowhere (well, nearly so – it is obviously in Seattle, where headquarters reside). As a result, in most states, Amazon charges no state tax. If you buy their products and are not charged tax, you are supposed to declare it yourself. And you do that, don’t you? Continue reading
The trolley problem is a famous thought experiment in philosophy, and runs something like this.
A runaway trolley is hurtling down a track. Five people have been tied to the track directly in front of the trolley, but there is a switch which allows the trolley to be diverted to an alternative track where one person has been tied to the track. You are standing at the switch and see the disaster unfolding. What do you do? Most people answer that they would flip switch, killing one to save five – classic utilitarian thinking. The trolley problem has been embellished in a variety of interesting ways. The most famous of these is called the fat man problem: 5 people are tied to the track as before, but now there is a fat man on a bridge over the track, and if you push him off, he will fall before the train, stopping it and saving 5 people as before; of course, the fat man dies in the process. People who were willing to pull the switch to save 5 people tend to be reluctant to push the fat man off the bridge. Philosophers suggest that this reluctance is based upon deontological thinking, where one’s deep-seated values determine one’s actions rather than cool rational thought. Continue reading
Neuroessentialism, for those who have not followed my discussion of the topic in these pages and elsewhere, is the position that we are our brains. That is not to say that we are not also our genes, our bodies, our social networks, or even our computers, if one considers the extended mind hypothesis - we are all those things too. Rather the part of me that I care the most about is my brain (no offence Woody) – that three pound mass between my ears that contains my memories, my emotions, my intellect, my world view and more. Much much more.
Steven Pinker, writing in The Blank Slate, serves up a version of this perspective by referring to Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis in which Crick suggested that “all our thoughts and feelings, joys and aches, dreams and wishes consist in the physiological activity of our brain.” Pinker quite correctly points out that “Jaded neuroscientists, who take the idea for granted, snickered at the title.” I distinctly remember doing just that back in 1994 when Crick’s book first appeared, wondering to myself “What’s so astonishing about that?” Or, as I am wont to say when discussions touch on the topic arise in the conference room the Core, “If X (choose your phenomenon – love, hate, rationality, irrationality – the list goes on and on) does not derive from the activity of the brain, what else might cause it?” That usually evokes deathly silence (and some not-so-friendly glares from those who find the concept unsettling). Continue reading
In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of attention paid to a group of highly capable hackers who call themselves LulzSec, having broken into websites as diverse as Sony, Nintendo, the CIA, and the US Senate, among others. They recently disbanded after a 50 day spree that garnered a great deal of media attention. The group has said that they do it for the fun, or Lulz of it, rather than having any particular political agenda as other groups such as Anonymous have done. Apparently, this has not been sitting well with other netizens who feel that some hacktivist norms have been violated. And so a group calling themselves Web Ninjas have turned the tables on LulzSec, publishing the ’DOx’ (hacker slang for personal information) of LulzSec members, effectively outing them. This is, of course, dangerous, and LulzSec has predictably threatened revenge.
What is interesting about this chain of events is that the norms are ones that have arisen amongst people who otherwise countenance hacking, a form of behaviour that is at a minimum an intrusion on the privacy of others. But societies develop in all sorts of ways, and what we are witnessing is a form of altruistic punishment playing out amongst competing groups of underground netizens. Altruistic punishment is a form of norm violation enforcement where an individual, or group of individuals, is willing to put themselves at some disadvantage in order to enforce what is considered a social more; in this case, it is the easily anticipated revenge that represents the disadvantage to the Web Ninjas. The behaviour has been a favourite of neuroeconomics, and is thought to be an important part of the social glue that holds cooperating societies together. It appears that norm violations grate on us deeply, whether in the real world or out there in the anarchistic universe of cyberspace.
Image credit: er0n22